The Los Angeles Kings will begin the defense of their Stanley Cup title on Tuesday, as they visit the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center for Game 1 of the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Kings enter this postseason as the fifth seed in the West after winning it all as a No. 8 seed last spring. Although Los Angeles barely qualified for the playoffs in 2012, it went 16-4 in the postseason in a dominating run to the franchise's first championship. This spring, the Kings will try to become the first NHL team to win consecutive championships since Detroit pulled off the feat in 1997 and '98.
St. Louis, this year's fourth seed in the West, was one of the Kings' victims in the 2012 playoffs, as L.A. outscored the Blues by a combined 15-6 margin during a four-game sweep in the conference semifinals. The Blues did little to erase the memory of that sweep during this season's series, as L.A. doubled up St. Louis by a 14-7 margin en route to winning all three meetings during the regular season.
Although this season the Kings have not quite resembled last year's playoff juggernaut, all the same pieces that made up the 2012 squad are still in place, including reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick.
Quick's play in net last spring was a performance for the ages, as he went 16-4 with a 1.41 GAA, .946 save percentage and three shutouts to blaze a path to the championship. However, regaining that form has been a season-long struggle for the 27-year-old American, as Quick was outplayed by backup Jonathan Bernier for most of the lockout-shortened campaign.
Quick wound up with an 18-13-4 record in 37 games this season and recorded a 2.45 GAA and .902 save percentage. Bernier, meanwhile, went 9-3-1 with a 1.88 GAA, but head coach Darryl Sutter is staying with Quick at the start of this postseason.
Despite Quick's down season, L.A. still managed to play a balanced game in 2013, as the club ranked seventh in team defense (2.38 goals allowed per game) and 10th in offense with 2.73 goals per contest. The team's offensive numbers were a big improvement from 2011-12, when L.A. was 29th in the NHL with just 2.29 goals per game.
St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock likely will need a superb performance from starting goaltender Brian Elliott if the Blues are to turn the tide against the Kings this spring.
Elliott and Jaroslav Halak combined to form the league's best goaltending tandem in 2011-12. Halak started last year's playoffs as the No. 1 netminder before being injured two games into the postseason. This season, a injury to Halak on April 1 allowed Elliott to grab the reins and all he did was set a St. Louis team record with 11 April wins.
Elliott went 11-2-0 with a 1.28 goals against average and a .948 save percentage over his final 13 outings. Even with Halak back healthy, Hitchcock has placed his faith in Elliott heading into the playoffs.
"He's back playing the way he did all of last year," Hitchcock recently told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He was very good when Jaro (Halak) got hurt in the playoffs and then he had the inner-ear infection and didn't really play up to par until the last game when he was healthy. I just like his frame of mind. I like his disposition. He's a confident guy right now and we're going to need him."
The Blues will need Elliott to be at the top of his game, considering the club struggled to score all season long and finished 17th in the NHL with 2.58 goals per game.
Six players totaled four points for the Kings during the season series with the Blues and Jeff Carter led the way with three goals and one assist. Alex Pietrangelo and David Perron each had a goal and two assists for St. Louis, while rookie Vladimir Tarasenko notched a pair of goals.
Quick went 2-0 with a 1.81 GAA in two games versus the Blues, while neither St. Louis goaltender fared well in the season series. Elliott was 0-1 with a 4.10 GAA in two appearances against the Kings.
The second game of this series is scheduled for Thursday in St. Louis before it shifts to L.A. for Games 3 and 4.
The Blues were 15-8-1 as the host during the regular season, while L.A. had a poor 8-12-4 mark on the road.